“Will, please get up. It’s time for school.”
He barely heard his mother’s voice in the doorway. He ignored her and continued attempting to sleep.
“I am not going to ask you again. You can stay home and sit with your grandfather instead if you’d like.”
That would be a worse alternative. Since his “recovery” from the flu virus, his grandfather did little but sit in his chair all day staring at nothing. He barely ate anything and rarely spoke.
“Fine. I’ll be down for breakfast in a minute.”
He dressed quickly, washed his face in the basin and ran a comb through his unruly dark hair. He would be seeing Cynthia Nolan today. That was the reason he looked forward to school.
Will’s mother was at the kitchen sink when he came downstairs. She placed a plate of scrambled eggs and some toast in front of him without comment.
His father came into the kitchen, took two pieces of dry toast and mumbled something about going out to the barn. He nodded wordlessly at his son as if to say, “Good luck today, Will.”
Will’s teacher from seventh grade last year, Miss Willard had used a phrase once. The Elephant in the Room. Will hadn’t understood then what it meant, but he thought he understood now.
His parents had never been known to talk all that much, but the silence this morning was telling. There was some subject they were deliberately avoiding. Like an elephant in the middle of the kitchen they saw but refused to acknowledge.
Will walked the two miles to the school in town alone. The McCann twins walked ahead of him. Even the McCann boys were more subdued and less boisterous since their younger sister had passed.
The flu pandemic had left a sadness and a fog over everything. Will didn’t know if there would ever be smiling and laughter ever again.
He walked down Main Street, past shuttered businesses. Mape’s Hardware, and the barber shop were closed down. The grocer was only open limited hours for essentials. There had been food shortages during the pandemic and folks had been afraid to come into town during the peak of the virus. Will felt grateful his family grew enough of their own food to survive.
When Will got to the red brick school building a few students were still outside waiting for the bell to sound. It had been months since a lot of them had seen one another, but there was a tentativeness in their greeting of one another.
It had been so long since he’d been in school that Will had almost forgotten he was in the eighth grade.
It turned out so few students were returning to school that the seventh and eighth grade were combined in one classroom. He would have Miss Willard as a teacher again. That was a good thing. Miss Willard brought him extra books to read and encouraged his dream of going to high school next year and on to college.
He searched for Cynthia, but did not find her in the sea of faces. Maybe her parents were keeping her home. They were kind of overprotective. Her mother had even walked to school with her even though Cynthia was twelve years old
His friend, Joe Stanford slid into a seat next to Will just as the bell rang.
“Hello, Will.” Joe said without much enthusiasm. Joe had always despised school.
“Hello. Have you seen Cynthia Nolan anywhere?”
Joe gave him a strange look. Then Annie Miller, a seventh grader who talked and gossiped a lot spoke up.
“You mean no one told you, Will? Cynthia is dead. She caught the virus and she died.”
Will had never hit anyone and he would never hit a girl. But he was tempted to hit Annie right about then.
“You’re a liar, Annie Miller! That is a big, fat, stupid lie!”
He got up and ran from the classroom as Miss Willard called after him.
He walked alone toward the river, trying to hold back tears. Crying was frowned upon in his family. Even when his grandmother died, no one had cried. At least not where anyone saw them do it.
It all made sense now. When the flu pandemic peaked last October his parents sent him to his Aunt‘s farm fifteen miles outside of town. As if the virus was incapable of traveling that distance.
Aunt Barbara was a widow ten years older than his father. She was set in her ways and went into town only when necessary. The nearest neighbor was miles away. She had no books or music in her house so Will busied himself helping with the farm chores.
When Will came home he found out his grandfather had survived the flu, but his personality was forever altered. Other than that, his parents never spoke of the influenza epidemic or the havoc it had caused.
Will sat near the riverbank thinking about Cynthia with her blonde curls and her pretty blue eyes. She had been as pretty as the china dolls they sold in Weston‘s Department Store.
He thought her beautiful. Yet he’d never gotten the courage to say one word to her.
What would she want with him? Her daddy owned the bank in town. His family was made up of farmers who barely eked out a living.
”Whatcha doing out here, Will? Aren’t you supposed to be back in school?”
He turned to face the female voice behind him. Rebecca Joyner.
“Yeah, I am. Aren’t you?”
Rebecca sat down on the bank beside him, removing her stockings and shoes. Becky Joyner had always run around and acted like a boy that was one reason he’d always liked her.
“I ain’t ready to go back there yet. I’m surprised at you though, skipping school. That ain’t like you, Will.”
He would have preferred being alone right now but he knew Becky wasn’t going away.
“I didn’t skip. I went to school and I left when I found out about Cynthia. I feel kind of mixed up right now. I’m sad about her and I’m mad about my folks not telling me.”
“I know what you mean. I miss her too sometimes. We were best friends when we were little. Before she got into all the girly clothes and such. Or more likely her mama pushed her into girly clothes.”
He had never known Becky and Cynthia were friends. They seemed so different.
They sat for awhile and Rebecca told him stories of how her and Cynthia were once two untamable, wild little girls. Until Cynthia’s parents started insisting she dress up and become more of a lady. According to Becky, Cynthia rebelled against this privately.
“It makes you wonder what she might have grown up to be if her parents let her be the free spirit she wanted to be, you know. Maybe the first woman President or somethin.”
It made Will even sadder that he had never really known her. The person she was and the person she would become someday.
“I could see that for you too, Becky, Becoming something important, I
Becky threw back her head and laughed. “Girls like me don’t do important things, Will.”
They sat for a few minutes and headed home. Will wasn’t sure how he was going to explain to his mother why he had left school. He decided not to bring up the subject of Cynthia’s death. Maybe his folks had the right idea. The less said about certain things the better.